The Kingpin at Rest

El Chapo 2014.jpg

Omar Franco Pérez Reyes/Demotix/Corbis

Joaquín Guzmán Loera after his arrest, Mexico City, Mexico, February 22, 2014

At 6:40 AM last Saturday, Joaquín Guzmán Loera was taken prisoner by Mexican Navy special forces in the pretty little seaside resort of Mazatlán, where senior Americans love to retire and where the juniors of the drug trade love to party. Since his escape from jail in 2001, he had moved freely around Mexico, and, it would seem, much of the rest of the world. People who know about these things even say that he was frequently in San Diego, California, shopping for the designer tennis shoes and fancy moccasins he favored. But in the end the best-known, and possibly even the most powerful of Mexico’s many, many drug traffickers was pretty much where he’d always been: in his home state of Sinaloa. He was found dozing peacefully in a plain furnished apartment overlooking Mazatlán’s oceanfront drive—the kind of place rented by families looking to save money on a comfortable vacation. Reportedly, there was a pot of beans on the kitchenette stove at the time of his arrest. His fortune is legendary, but Guzmán has always been a country boy at heart.

His capture was so easy that one wonders if he was tired of the hard life, looking to be caught, needing some relief from the pressure of transporting thousands of tons of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, you name it, in addition to the daily agony of deciding whom to kill, whom to trust. And then there was all the money requiring cleaning, tons of that too, literally, barrels and cratefuls of cash coming in every week: What to do with the boxes of it left over once the bodyguards, spies, goons, hit men, police officers, judges, mayors, governors, customs officials, army generals, prison guards, railroad workers, trucking bosses, journalists, ranch hands, relatives, cabinet ministers, bank officers, helicopter, jet, and airplane pilots, business associates, and barbers have been paid off? This last item is not negligible; the person who comes in to wield scissors very close to your neck once a month or so and monitor your half-hearted attempts at a disguise—a moustache, a dye job—is someone you definitely want to tip richly if you’re Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán.

Everyone has to be tipped, in fact, every single person you come into contact with—if you’re Guzmán and there’s a seven-million-dollar reward on your head. Tipped and feared. The jefe was reported to drive around Sinaloa and the states of Durango, Chihuahua, and Sonora with an army of bodyguards, in armored cars, lookouts everywhere. It’s a tiresome business, and so it becomes a real question: What was Guzmán doing, slumbering in an apartment building right on Mazatlan’s main tourist drag, five days after Navy special forces knocked down the reinforced metal door to one of his seven houses in the Sinaloa capital of Culiacán, giving him just enough time to escape through one of the tunnels that connected the houses to each other and to the public water system? In the mountains and craggy valleys of the Sierra Madre, Guzmán has been impossible to capture even on those occasions when the security forces showed some interest in doing so. But he fled from Culiacán last week not to the Sierra but to Mazatlán. Perhaps he thought he’d been tipping to everyone´s satisfaction, and miscalculated.

Until the Gulf Coast traffickers made their bid for national coverage starting in the late 1970s, the great majority of Mexico’s most successful drug traffickers came from Sinaloa—from the lowland municipios, or counties, of Guamuchil and Navolato, or from the Sierra Madre highland county of Badiraguato, where Chapo Guzmán was born, sometime in the mid-1950s. Badiraguato is among the small number of municipios in Mexico in which real, constant hunger is the standard condition of life to this day. Guzmán comes from generations of highland marijuana and opium poppy-farming families. Those crops don´t pay much, but they pay more than corn.

In the mid-1970s, encouraged by the United States, the Mexican government launched a series of anti-drug military operations in the highlands, which were really anti-campesino operations. Rummaging in the National Archives in Mexico City, the Sinaloan historian Froylan Enciso recently found charges, never acted on, filed in Culiacán in 1975 by several women from San José, a hamlet just downhill from La Tuna, Guzman’s birthplace. The women were protesting the incursion of Mexican army troops into their village—population about four hundred. The troops, they said, had come looting and pillaging into their homes. One young boy was shot, the men fled, the women were forced to strip naked and molested, a woman who had just sold some cattle was robbed of her money. The last name of one of those women was Loera. Joaquín Guzmán Loera would have been around seventeen years old then, and Enciso speculates that this woman could have been a close relative. The account is, in any event, typical of the period. Army operations in rural Sinaloa have been recurrent ever since that time, and it is fair to say that Guzmán, like thousands of Sinaloans, has lived his adult life in a state of war and his use of violence comes naturally.


In the early 1980s, when military operations in Sinaloa became too bothersome, the drug capos went into exile a couple of states south, in Guadalajara, Jalisco. Guzmán, by then an operator for the pioneer trafficker Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, went with him. By 1990 Félix was in jail, paying for his involvement in the murder of a DEA agent. To avoid a costly war the Sinaloa clans parceled out their vast territories among the different family groups—the Arellano Félix family got Tijuana, the Carrillo Fuentes clan got Ciudad Juárez. Guzmán, still young, didn’t get much, but he soon changed all that. He challenged the Arellano Félixes for Tijuana and in 1993 was involved in a confused shoot-out at the Guadalajara airport in which the archbishop of Guadalajara—who had previously been the archbishop of Tijuana—wound up dead. Guzmán decided to lie low in Guatemala, but he was captured and extradited to Mexico almost immediately and spent the next eight years in jail.

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Guzmán at the maximum security prison in Almoloya, Mexico, June 2000

He managed to get himself sent to a federal prison near Guadalajara, where he evidently had some good contacts in the justice system. In January, 2001, after a reported 2.5 million-dollar tip, Guzmán was spirited out of jail, according to the official legend, in a laundry cart. (Another legend has it that Guzmán actually walked out of jail the day before, allowing officials a little time to stage their astonishment.) It took him only thirteen years to make his fame and vast fortune, but now, barring some extraordinary sleight-of-hand, the likelihood is that he will spend the rest of his life in a grim high-security prison following extradition to the United States.

What was Guzmán doing in that seaside apartment, really, given the stakes? The shoreline area of Mazatlán is divided roughly into three parts. To the north is the Zona Dorada, a tacky stretch of nightclubs and restaurants where the moneyed youth of Sinaloa—wanted by the law or not—come to play and mingle. The middle section of the extraordinarily long bay is occupied by the charming traditional sector, now inhabited largely by US retirees who have done what they always do: restore old houses, set up lending libraries and bridge clubs, open small storefront coffee spots featuring homemade banana bread and apple cake. Towards the southern end is a less picturesque but still traditional area, where locals love to point out what they believe is the city’s DEA headquarters—a large, unmarked, two-story building full of security cameras. The Miramar building where Guzmán was found is placed almost at the center of the beachfront, walking distance, if one felt like it, to the purported DEA station. A highly visible building with only two exits, both of them to the main avenue, the Miramar was not a good place to hide, but of the hundreds of people normally in charge of making sure Chapo Guzmán stayed safe, only his bodyguard was in the building when the Mexican Navy’s special forces came calling.

It is now known that the woman found with him in the Miramar apartments was his wife, Emma Coronel, the daughter of a strategic business associate from across the Western Sierra Madre, in the neighboring state of Durango. She was seventeen years old when he met her, and no doubt he exercised his influence so that she could win the beauty contest at the annual Festival of Coffee and the Guava in her home town of Canelas. After the two were married in 2007, Guzmán moved to Durango, living peacefully not far from the state capital, like Pancho Villa. (“Everyone knows it except the government,” Monsignor Héctor González Martínez said, and repeated, in 2009.) The couple’s twin girls were born in the United States in 2010, at a clinic in Los Angeles, and now we learn that they, too, were at the Miramar with him.

The journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, who works for the powerful television chain Televisa and has privileged access to the security forces, reported today on the conversation between the always garrulous Chapo and the high-level security officials on the Learjet taking him to prison. Why, they wanted to know, as we all do, did he flee to the lobster trap of Mazatlán? “I hadn’t seen my little girls,” he shrugged.


He has always been a devoted parent; but this does not make sense. Many now believe that Chapo voluntarily turned himself in, that the commandos who went through the building at four in the morning, according to witnesses, were there simply to guarantee the operation’s safety while all the appropriate contracts and agreements were signed, that Emma Coronel was there to say good-bye.

This version does not attempt to explain why Guzmán would feel like ending his life at large, with the prospect of a lifetime of solitary confinement in a US prison before him, but there are many other views about how and why Guzmán was snared. He was turned in by his closest business associate, the trafficker Ismael Zambada, some argue, because Zambada was suspicious that the arrest of his own top people earlier this month was due to a betrayal by Guzmán. Or, he was at the cheap beachfront apartment with its dinky furniture because he had become overconfident, and was looking forward to watching this coming weekend’s carnival parade with his wife and daughters from the Miramar’s balcony. Or, he was arrested because “something bad” happened between Guzmán, president Enrique Peña Nieto, and the ruling party of Mexico, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI.

This last speculation came from Phil Jordan, the DEA’s former intelligence chief in El Paso, Texas, who seems not to have realized that his phone conversation with an anchorman for Univision news was being broadcast live. “I never thought that [with the PRI in power] they were going to arrest him, because Chapo Guzman put a lot of money into Peña Nieto’s campaign,” Jordan said blithely. Others seem to feel that some of Zambada’s and Guzman’s underlings are making their own power play against the capos. What is undeniably true is that a major player in the great transnational business of clandestine drug trading is in government custody.

Careful estimates of the number of fatalities directly related to drug violence in the drug wars’ peak years, between 2006 and 2012, put the figure at approximately sixty thousand deaths, and as many as 25,000 “disappeared.” How many of those murders—the encobijados, or rolled-in-blanket-ones, the descabezados, or headless ones, the colgados, or lynched ones, the descuartizados, or quartered ones, the desollados, or flayed ones—were the direct result of Joaquín Guzmán’s wars against the various Tijuana, Juárez, Tamaulipas, and Michoacán drug-trafficking clans is hard to figure: twenty thousand? Thirty? A mere one thousand? According to Loret de Mola, Guzmán claimed in the Learjet, with sublime disregard for the legal intricacies awaiting him, that he had killed one or two thousand people. Joaquín Guzmán may or may not continue to rule his territory from jail—as he did in the 1990s. His business partners may or may not take to murdering each other again in a bid to take over his portion of the trade. But the structures, chains of command, and logistics of a trade in illicit products—now including pirate DVDs, human beings, weapons, and designer drugs—are firmly in place all over Mexico, in large part as a result of Guzmán’s imaginative efforts. No matter what happens, it is highly unlikely that the volume, violence, or profitability of the drug trade will diminish as a result of his capture.

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